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Coffee culture: A look at Melbourne’s love affair with good coffee

Stephen Clarke

Tue May 12 2015


INTERESTED in Melbourne’s renowned coffee scene but don’t know where to start? Stephen Clarke runs you through a brief history of Melbourne’s love of coffee and the different ways we drink it. 

Melbourne is synonymous with coffee. Every suburb is veritably oozing with cafes. Behind minimalist décor and underneath industrial lighting that looks like it’s been liberated straight from the ’50s, apron-clad baristas ply their trade and serve up magic’s, pour-overs and cold brews.

For every cafe or hole-in-the-wall coffee shop hidden down an alley there are a line of customers eagerly waiting their single-origin, Ethiopian, ethically sourced caffeine fix.

But don’t be overwhelmed.

Melbourne’s coffee origins are just as humble as anywhere else, and the growing demand for well-made coffee from small, independent cafes represents a growing shift away from the corporate coffee companies that were once on every corner.

The coffee trade in Melbourne began in the 1830s with the development of grand ‘coffee palaces’. Respectable and exuberant with immense façades, they sprouted throughout the CBD with the influx of the temperance movement, a social movement against the consumption of alcohol. Coffee was seen as the alternative to the ‘demon drink,’ alcohol.

One of Melbourne’s longest running espresso bars, Pelligrini’s. Image: Nick D via wikimedia

By the 1930s, Melbourne had established it’s own style of the continental coffee house and the very first espresso machine was imported from Italy around this time. The espresso machine didn’t hit the mainstream market until the 1950s, and at that time espresso bars were seen as places of gambling and vice.

Fast forward half a century and these ‘hotbeds of vice’ are what half of Melbourne runs on. New cafes pop up every other day and sites like Beanhunter help users keep track of trending and well-reviewed cafes.

Many cafes offer a range of alternatives to the regular milk-based coffees like flat whites and cappuccinos, such as cold brew, syphon and pour overs.

Cold brew

An icy cold brew coffee. Image: Dennis Tang via flickr

An icy cold brew coffee. Image: Dennis Tang via flickr

Perfect for the summer months, but refreshing any time of year, this method of brewing cold coffee involves leaving the grounds to steep in water usually for at least 12 hours.

What is produced is a delicious, natural alternative to the iced coffee. Try one served over ice at Manchester Press!


Coffee syphons at work. Image: Kenny Louie via flickr

Coffee syphons at work. Image: Kenny Louie via flickr

The syphon coffee brewer looks like it’s been smuggled out of a high school science lab.

It’s a modern reincarnation of the classic coffee brewing method and operates much like a science experiment. Water is heated in a glass vessel and forced into an upper vessel containing the coffee grounds.

This is one of the less common brewing methods used in Melbourne. Try out Sensory Lab on Little Collins St, where they will be happy to recommend the perfect coffee for a syphon.


This increasingly popular method is also the most simple. Many coffee shops prefer it as it is said to provide the most clarity of flavour.

Coffee is put in a paper filter over a cup and water is slowly poured over the grounds and allowed to drip through into the cup.

Market Lane opposite the Queen Victoria Market prides itself on producing a great pour-over and are happy to show customers how it works.

Other experiences

For the seasoned coffee drinker Melbourne is a world of delights, as cafes source new beans from exotic locations and experiment with new and bizarre coffee-based refreshments.

For the aspiring connoisseur, try visiting Seven Seeds for a cupping session; a free weekly event where customers can taste a variety of coffees to help develop their palette and breakdown the various aspects of a coffee’s taste.